Rollin' on the River
Cruising the St. Johns River offers a slow-paced view of some of Florida's hidden treasures
Dinner cruise from Sanford aboard the “Romance”
The first crowds of Northern tourists to Florida didn’t come on Henry Flagler’s railroad, U.S. 1 or the interstates. Instead, they took the superhighway of the time, the St. Johns River, riding a fleet of steamboats, paddle wheelers and ferries that filled the river for three decades after the Civil War. The vessels sailed on the St. Johns and the intricate chains of lakes and canals to Palatka, Astor, Sanford and beyond into the wet and wild heart of Florida. Palatka was such a busy port it once had seven steamship lines.
DeBary-Baya Merchants' Line travel guide, 1884
Revisit the steamboating past in its greatest glory at a few accommodations that still remain.
» PORTS OF CALL: Frederick DeBary, a New York wine merchant, built a grand hunting retreat on Lake Monroe in 1875 and eventually wound up making it a prime destination and center of his own steamship line. DeBary Hall with its two stories of verandahs, exhibits and nature trails is open to visitors thanks to preservation efforts.
The yellow clapboard Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora got its start 120 years ago as a winter home for New Englanders who came by boat for warmth and Chautauqua lectures. While Palatka no longer has the old grand hotels for guests, the Azalea House bed and breakfast and other historic buildings date back to the city’s heyday as a bustling Victorian port. For an odd modern twist on steamboats, visit little Welaka, where 20th-century adventurer Robert Speas settled in the 1970s to work on his dream of building wooden boats — and constructing new steam engines to propel them.
[Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection]
» ON THE WATER: Sadly, steamships no longer ply the length of the St. Johns, but there are ways to explore the river if you have no boat of your own.
You can take guided eco-cruises of the still remote waters and wildlife from the state parks at DeLeon Springs and Blue Springs, a dinner cruise from Sanford on the rivership “Romance” or take a ferry to Hontoon Island for the day or night.
To replicate grander trips on the river, minus chefs, porters and calliopes, you can rent small boats at various points and/or move up to a full houseboat with galley and bedrooms. Holly Bluff Marina keeps a fleet of six that sleep up to 10 along 50 miles of Lake George and Monroe, while St. Johns River Adventures in Georgetown rents houseboats from Silver Glen up to Jacksonville. Costs vary depending on size and season, but a weekend trip can be had for $1,500 or less. Don’t plan on going very fast — seven to eight knots at most.
» BY RAIL: By 1900, railroads came to Florida with the full force of Flagler and Henry Plant. You can still traverse rural and sometimes wild Florida on Amtrak (7:15 a.m. service from Jacksonville to Lakeland in 4½ hours for about $65) chugging through Sanford and Palatka.
The Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora hosted many luminaries through the years, including Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.